By Adrienne Dellwo
Have you come to hate talking on the telephone since you’ve had fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome? It’s a common thing for us, with people frequently saying they have an especially hard time focusing on phone conversations.
So why is this? It hasn’t been studied, but several factors could contribute to this problem:
- When you’re on the phone, you don’t get any of the non-verbal cues that come with face-to-face conversation. Communication experts agree that most of communication is non-verbal, and when you remove all those verbal cues, your brain has to work harder to comprehend what’s being said. Our foggy brains may not be able to muster that level of focus.
- We’re often in environments that are full of distraction. You hear a lot about “multitasking,” which doesn’t really mean that the brain is doing multiple things at once. Even in healthy people, according to experts, the brain is actually switching from one task to another. FMS and ME/CFS brains often have a hard time with multitasking. I know if my kids or the TV are loud, or someone walks into the room, it can steal my attention from the conversation and I’ll miss a chunk of it.
- The language problems common in us—which includes word recall—can complicate conversation and make it stressful. If you’re afraid of forgetting common words or losing your train of thought, it may make your symptoms worse. Personally, I really dislike speaking to strangers on the phone because I don’t want to appear stupid. At least if it’s someone I know well, I can say, “Sorry, I just had a fibro moment. Can you repeat that?”
- Social interaction takes energy. I didn’t understand that when I was healthy, but now I know it all too well. On low-energy days, I really try to avoid the phone.
- Holding the phone can be really painful for the hand, arm, shoulder, neck or even ear. Some phones get really hot, which can bother those of us who have thermal allodynia (pain from temperatures that wouldn’t normally cause pain.)Fortunately, speakerphones and headsets can alleviate a lot of these problems.
It may be easier to write than talk when language impairment is acting up. Then, youI can take more time with it, sort through your jumbled thoughts, and then proofread it. On top of that, when you receive written messages, you can keep them and refer back if necessary. You may remember things better when you read them, too.
When you do have to use the phone, try to eliminate all the distractions you can. Go into a quiet room and shut the door, maybe even turn out the light. If you need to relay specific information, make notes ahead of time and keep them with you. To help you remember information, take notes. That prevents frustrations like making a doctor’s appointment or plans with a friend and then forgetting the details the moment you hang up.
If you have problems communicating via telephone, it can help to let the people who speak with frequently know about it. Let them know that when you ask him to repeat something, it’s not because you were ignoring them. You may also want to encourage them to send you texts or emails instead of calling, especially if they know you haven’t been feeling well. It might be worth exploring Skype, especially for long distance calls or conversations you expect to be lengthy.
If you have to use the phone as part of your job, you may be able to request reasonable accommodation from your employer. (Yes, the Americans with Disabilities Act DOES apply to you!) That may include things like hands-free devices or requests for instructions to be delivered in writing rather than over the phone.
Studies have shown that it’s a bad idea for anyone to talk on a cell phone while driving, even if it’s hands-free. While it’s not something that has been studied specifically, it seems safe to assume that those of us with communication-based cognitive dysfunction would be especially dangerous when it comes to talking while driving.
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Nunes L, Recarte MA. Science Direct. June 2002 5(2):133-144. Cognitive demands of hands-free-phone conversation while driving.
National Safety Council. How cell phone distracted driving affects the brain. All rights reserved. Accessed: February 2015.